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Noozhawk Talks: The Fund for Santa Barbara’s Geoff Green Puts Nonprofit Focus on Real Change

Leading by example, executive director is a catalyst for innovative thinking, new approaches to ensure community benefits

You’d be hard pressed to find another guy in town who’s as enthusiastic about his work as Geoff Green is. “I get to wake up every day and do exactly what I would want to do even if I didn’t have to have a job,” said the executive director of The Fund for Santa Barbara. Green recently talked with Noozhawk’s Leslie Dinaberg about what drives his passion to continue to fight the good fight on behalf of social, economic and environmental issues.

Leslie Dinaberg: The Fund for Santa Barbara is celebrating its 30th anniversary but a lot of people still don’t understand what exactly you do. Can you explain?

Geoff Green: The fund is a community foundation that was established specifically to address root causes of social, economic and environmental issues.

... Nancy Alexander is our founder and she is still involved. If you want a really good background on this and how it works I put together a film and we have that on our Web site. (Click here to watch the video.)

LD: I watched that.

GG: Change not charity is the tagline we use, and the idea is not to denigrate charity. I wouldn’t say that charity isn’t good, but simply to say that charity — which we all believe is necessary and that we all are a part of — will never, ever solve any of these problems. It’s immediate human response to something that’s needed but it’s not going to fix it. So you can do a soup kitchen forever, but you’re not going to end hunger; you’re just going to give somebody a meal that day.

You can compare it to the you can teach a man to fish vs. give him a fish kind of theory. It’s really the same concept, which is you ask the harder questions, look at the root problems and try to address those. It’s often the uncomfortable work, it’s the politically charged work, it’s the controversial work, but my experience is if you look at the long history of all of this, in the end history says yes, you were right (Laughs) and it just takes a while for everybody to get there. But it’s the organizers who usually lead that.

The strategies are complex. I think you always need to play the insider/outsider roles — you need it all. On the environment, people often ask how we see our work and what we do, and I give the Sierra Club/Earth First! example. Without Earth First!, the Sierra Club would be this radical organization. As long as we have actual radicals, then by comparison the Sierra Club is the mild-mannered, nice old people you want to go talk to. So you need all of that. You need the people who are going to make a lot of noise and draw attention to it, you need the people who are going to do the thinking and the policy work, you need the people who are persuasive political leaders and can change minds, and you need people who are going to fund it — and we bridge all of those worlds.

LD: Your focus is both narrow and broad. Do you as an institution say, this year, we’re really going make the environment a higher priority than equal rights? How does that equation work?

GG: My short answer would be yes. But the landscape changes so fast. We try to be responsive to the immediacy of the social political economic landscape. ... Our history, our backgrounds are in community organizing; that’s true of all the staff and that’s true of most of the board and the grant-making committee, as well.

LD: So you must have really big fundamental conversations at least twice a year.

GG: Yes, the idea is to defer to the grant-making committee to make those on-the-spot decisions, but they rely heavily on the staff because we’re the ones doing it every day. I’m probably in a better position than anyone else in the organization to say here’s what’s happening in the community because I intentionally put myself on everybody’s list. My job is to go out and know people and talk to people. If there’s an issue that comes up, pretty quickly between myself, Nancy Weiss, Gary Clark, Cristina González, we can say here’s what is happening right now, and use that as a backdrop for them to make that decision.

LD: I can see where it would keep it interesting from your desk. When people donate to The Fund for Santa Barbara is it nondirected?

GG: It’s a choice, like with any nonprofit. ... I would bet there is not a single donor who knows everything that we do. We put it out so they could know it, but very few people take the time. They just know the general stuff, the principles, and they donate to support that. The vast majority of our donors give gifts unrestricted. They say they love The Fund and what you do and here is X. There are certainly donors I work with — and it’s often the larger donors — and they’re either really excited about something and they want all their money to go for that work or they are really uncomfortable with something else and they want to do everything but. We get the whole spectrum and we’re happy to do that.

LD: What about political campaigns?

GG: No. There are two no-no’s in the nonprofit world, and now you’ve gotten me on one of my favorite subjects. Most people think they know that nonprofits can’t be political and they are wrong. Everyone says they are wrong, our government says they are our wrong, but people still think that’s true, including I’m afraid some of my dear friends and allies who are longtime nonprofit people. ... Nonprofit organizations can’t be partisan — very different than political. Partisan means you can’t play with candidates and you can’t play with (political) parties, and so those are the only two things you cannot do.

LD: But you can support a measure?

GG: You can support bills, measures, electoral work, positions of candidates. You can do all of that. You just can’t support or oppose a candidate and you can’t support or oppose a party. We don’t touch any of that work — that’s for the action committees and everybody else — but we absolutely can host candidate forums and we’ve done that, we can sign on to measures. We funded and signed on to the No on Measure J in Carpinteria and gave a lot of money toward that. Obviously we won that by a big margin. ... If nonprofits spent even 10 percent of their time engaging in political policy work, the world would be a much better place.

LD: How does The Fund for Santa Barbara differ from a community foundation like the Santa Barbara Foundation?

GG: Let me start with how they’re the same. We’re both community foundations, which means we are public charities that raise money from multiple sources and give back to our own community. We have boards of directors — a board of trustees in their case — and we have a mission to better the community. That’s about it.

Now I will say this is my caveat to this: the new leadership at the (Santa Barbara) foundation is really exciting. They get it.

The Santa Barbara Foundation, historically, was a fairly narrow conservative entity. ... It tended to reflect the values and the comfort zone of its leadership and that leadership historically was pretty conservative — not politically conservative necessarily but conservative as far as we’re not familiar with that, we’re going to stick to what we know.

And they’ve been changing radically, as philanthropy has been over the last 10 years. I frankly credit the work of The Fund for Santa Barbara and of our peer group of these foundations that have been around between 25 and 45 years that have pushed and pushed and pushed. That’s the other role that we have ... we can influence other circles. We don’t move a whole lot of money but we do a lot of very innovative things that no one else will dare to try, and we make it safe basically for others to do it.

The Santa Barbara Foundation is an incredible institution. It’s one of the biggest and oldest in the country, and the difference is they have historically stuck to very traditional service work and capital work, and we’ve done everything that they wouldn’t do.

We’re working with them as peers now, looking at how we serve the nonprofit community.They’ve recognized that our expertise is in this really grassroots work and that, ultimately, if that’s supported, it serves them and everybody that they serve.

...  When I first sat at the Foundation Roundtable, we were kind of those funky little kids in the corner, and they’ve invited my predecessor, Nancy Weiss, and now me on to their executive committee and I feel like we are truly viewed as peers. Again, we don’t have a lot of private wealth behind us, but we have a whole lot of people and a whole lot of interest and support in the community.

LD: I would venture to say that not having a whole lot of private wealth behind you makes your job as executive director significantly different than every other executive director in town.

GG: Amen. (Laughs)

A big part of my job has to be spent raising money because we don’t have a development director; I am our development director. I have a very supportive staff and board, but in the end a big part of my job is to lead that effort to gather the resources and get the support.

LD: In the video, you talked about a big chunk of your resources providing seed funding for projects. Has that changed with the economy or has that been consistent?

GG: It’s still consistent. One of the things that has shifted in the nonprofit landscape, and I can say this because I am one, funders are very trendy and moody and they have their little thing that they like and then they don’t like it and they move on. And that’s a really bad habit of philanthropy. The good news is — for the first time, I think — it’s being discussed seriously and funders are open to the criticism and actually offering it to themselves. They’re saying we really need to be much more consistent and clear and if we want something to change it’s not a one-year project or a six-month project, it’s a 10-year project. How many of those actually come to pass we will see but the conversation has at least started.

In that same context and in this economic downturn we also have a trend right now of, gosh, there are just too many nonprofits. In Santa Barbara that’s fairly easy to say because there are an incredible number of nonprofits. But just because there are a lot doesn’t mean there are too many, in my opinion, and in fact we don’t know what the right number is because we’ve never really asked those questions. We’ve started to do some studies, and there is one that was seriously done with the Foundation Roundtable, but I think it’s much more about the insularity of groups than it is about too many.

There are certainly groups that should and could be working together, and more and more that is happening, and there are some small, kind of boutique nonprofits that are going to close, and they should. They are really one-person, sort of vanity projects and need to go away. But that’s really the minority. There are very few of those. It’s much more of a question of the landscape that they operate in and some of that landscape has been created by the funders. The funders can’t turn around and complain that you guys don’t work together because you’re too competitive, because they are competitive for the dollars that the funders give.

We do a lot of work to try to get people to work together. I think there are always new projects and new seed funding to be done. New ideas are coming up all the time and I really believe if you want to know what is needed in any community in the country, look at what new projects and new nonprofits are springing up — that will tell you what is needed. If you want to see what’s needed, people self-organize and that’s what is needed. So we do a lot of seed funding but we are also part of the group that’s trying to be part of the solution and not the problem. We’re making more long-term commitments, we’re making more multiyear grants.

When I started with The Fund, the maximum grant was $4,000 and you couldn’t get repeat funding. It’s now up to $10,000 and you can get up to three years committed at once. It’s about time that we raise that cap, I would say, and we’re probably going to soon.

LD: How did you get into this type of work?

GG: It’s sort of the unintentional culmination of a whole lot of different things that I used to do. I was a park ranger in Yosemite, a naturalist, and I was coming back to the community in the fall of 1997 and I called on my friends and mentors in the community and I said I’m moving back. What in the heck am I going to do to make a living in Santa Barbara? And, independently, three different people said, “Call Nancy Weiss at The Fund for Santa Barbara” — in like a one-week period.

I sent in a resume, interviewed and within a couple of weeks I had the job and I came down here. It was what I didn’t realize I was kind of aiming for. Like most people, I didn’t realize I could work for a foundation. I didn’t know that was a career option so it never occurred to me. But previously I did community organizing work, I had run a couple of environmental campaigns, I did fundraising, I’ve run for political office and done electoral politics and got elected. I did student government for a long time in the UC System and, when I was 22, I ran in the November 1994 election and got elected to the Isla Vista Recreation & Park District as a student. I did a radio show for over a decade on KCSB — a public affairs show. So all of that led to coming back here and finding this work, and I can’t think of what else I would rather do.

I know I am very lucky and I continue to say that. I know I am very lucky to get to do exactly what I would want to do even if I didn’t have to have a job.

LD: That’s awesome. So when you’re not working, what else do you like to do?

GG: Well, if you ask my wife, she’ll say, “When is he not working? Why don’t I know this?” (Laughs) You know I love my work so the line is certainly blurred for me. Like I said, I get paid to do what I would want to do anyway, and I really feel lucky that I can do that. So I tend to be one of those hyper social kind of people, and I do like to go to the events and I like to meet with people and I like to talk about issues. Where the work stops and where the personal stops is kind of blurry sometimes.

When I’m not doing those kinds of things, the outdoors, to me, the natural world, that’s my place. I play the guitar; I used to even play in little coffee shops around here so I still have my guitar and like to do that. As a kid I had all of these hobbies so when I have the time, which is not as often as I’d like, I like making jewelry, of all things. I do all kinds of weird things.

LD: If you could pick three adjectives to describe yourself, what would they be?

GG: I don’t think of myself in those terms. OK, curious (about everything), pragmatic and optimistic (when I take the long view).

Click here for more information on The Fund for Santa Barbara. Click here for more information about or an application for The Fund for Santa Barbara’s 2010 Fall Grant Cycle.

The Fund for Santa Barbara’s 17th annual Bread & Roses fundraiser is 4-8 p.m. Sept. 19 at QAD in Summerland. Donations and sponsorships are being accepted now. Click here for more information.

Vital Stats: Geoff Green

Born: Nov. 3 in San Francisco

Family: Wife Seraphim Albrecht. “She helps me keep my balance,” Green says.

Civic Involvement: “That’s where the lines blur. I volunteer for and work for and donate to tons of groups, but to me there is always some overlap.”

Professional Accomplishments: “Learning something new every day, and I’m never bored; that’s my professional accomplishment. I think truly that’s it.”

Best Book You’ve Read Recently: “The Big Sort by Bill Bishop (about how we as a country are segregating ourselves along political lines), The End of Faith by Sam Harris (about the nature of religion, dogmas and extreme belief systems), and Lies my Teacher Told Me (which is about the way that history is taught in the United States) by James Loewen.”

Favorite Local Spot: “Anywhere I can run Stella, our dog.”

Little-Known Fact: “One of my friends said to me, ‘You’re one of those introverts masquerading as an extrovert, aren’t you?’ That’s kind of true, because I actually need and I prefer a lot of alone time and I don’t get it very often. That’s why I vote to disappear by myself for a week on the trail because that’s certainly alone time.”

Noozhawk contributor Leslie Dinaberg can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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